DSHS Reopens In-Person Services; New Library Director Says Day Centers at Libraries Would Confuse Patrons

1. Proponents of a bill (HB 2075) that would force the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to offer services in person scored a victory this week, as the agency agreed to reopen almost all its community services offices—key access points, prior to the pandemic, for people seeking services ranging from food stamps to cash assistance.

Since 2020, DSHS has required people seeking services to use an online portal or call a telephone hotline, where waits can be as long as several hours. The department opened the community service office lobbies late last year so that people seeking services could call the department on a land line or use a computer to access its online portal, but only agreed to offer services in person again after months of pressure from advocates for low-income and homeless people.

In a letter to stakeholders last week, DSHS Community Services Division director Babs Roberts wrote, “we have heard clearly from many of you and agree that some elements of our plans will not sufficiently meet the needs of all the people we serve, particularly those experiencing the deepest impacts of poverty and homelessness. Thus, we are making changes.”

However, Roberts added, short-staffing and social distancing requirements may result in “limited waiting space and possibly long wait times in our lobbies. This moment (like so many before) will require flexibility and patience.”

As PubliCola reported in January, the closure of in-person services made it essentially impossible for many of the state’s most vulnerable residents, including unsheltered people, to access critical services to which they are entitled, including food stamps, cash assistance, and housing subsidies.

Advocates are still pushing for the bill, which would direct DSHS to “strive to ensure” telephone wait times of no more than 30 minutes and would bar DSHS from restricting the kind of services clients can access in person. Friday is the cutoff date for the bill, which is currently in the senate rules committee, to pass out of the senate.

2. After a surprisingly contentious process, the Seattle Public Library Board unanimously appointed interim library director Tom Fay as the city’s Chief Librarian yesterday, rejecting another candidate, former Hennepin County (Minnesota) Library director Chad Helton, who resigned from his previous job amid criticism over his decision to work remotely from Los Angeles.

The vote, coming after a process that was mostly invisible to the public, shed little light on why the board chose Fay over Helton. (The two men were the only candidates that made it to the public stage of the vetting process.) During his one public interview, Helton defended his decision to run the Minnesota library system from California, saying he was just one of many people who started working from home during the pandemic. “The staff wasn’t really aware” that he lived elsewhere, Helton told the board, adding, “I didn’t think it was something that was necessary.” Fay lives in Pierce County.

As the (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune reported last week, Helton resigned from his position on February 1, after the Hennepin County Board of Supervisors passed a law, effective January 1, requiring the heads of public-facing departments like the library to live inside the state. Helton received $60,000 for “emotional damages,” plus $15,000 in attorneys’ fees, as part of a settlement.

Even if the city decided that library buildings would only open as day centers, without offering library services, Fay said, “if people were going in and out, that would be problematic for us, [because patrons] would have expectations of library services that would not be able to be offered.”

3. Hours after the vote, Fay gave a presentation on library operations to the Seattle City Council’s public assets and homelessness committee. Although the presentation was mostly a high-level look at how the library spends its money, Councilmember Lisa Herbold used the opportunity to ask Fay whether the library would consider allowing social-service providers to open and operate library branches as day centers during rare weather emergencies like last year’s Christmas snowstorm, when most library branches were closed.

“Does your plan [for emergency weather operations] consider the possibility of opening as a [day] shelter only, not using your staff, but using staff who are able to serve folks staying in a shelter, like we do [when] we open up City Hall as a shelter?” Herbold asked.

Although public libraries are designated warming sites during extreme cold-weather events, the library has said that it can’t open branches in any circumstances, including life-threatening cold, without a full complement of library staff, because patrons might show up expecting services that only certain library staff could offer.

“If we’re going to have a building open, there is an expectation from the public that library services would be offered from that building,” Fay said. “That is something that our staff are skilled and able to do… which requires obviously, skilled librarians, etc., to maintain building operations.”

Even if the city decided that library buildings would only open as day centers, without offering library services, Fay said, “if people were going in and out, that would be problematic for us, [because patrons] would have expectations of library services that would not be able to be offered.”

Although the library has consistently said that branches can’t open without full staffing, including librarians and (in some cases) security on site, the currently union contract for library employees only stipulates that three staffers are required to open most library branches—or a minimum of two, if absolutely necessary.

We’ve asked a library spokesperson whether there is a separate policy requiring a specific mix of staffers on site before a branch can open.

The library, which has been operating on reduced hours across most branches, plans to resume its regular schedule at the end of this month.

—Erica C. Barnett

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